Saul Nassé's speech at the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education’s (NIACE) Innovating Learning conference, hosted at the BBC in Salford on 4 December 2012.
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Hello and welcome to the BBC. It’s great to have you all here today and to be co-hosting this event with NIACE. We were out in force at last year’s conference in London, so I’m delighted that we are able to hold it here in Salford today.
It’s now eighteen months since we moved into these wonderful new buildings in MediaCityUK. This is Quay House - home to BBC Sport, Radio 5 Live and BBC Breakfast. Across that-away is Bridge House, where my office is – or rather my open plan hot desk is, along with Children’s and Entertainment. Across the piazza is Dock House, where you’ll find Religion – if you haven’t already.
In between there’s a wonderful studio complex run by our landlords, Peel Media. And we have great neighbours: Salford University, ITV with its new Corrie set, the Imperial War Museum North, and two Lowrys. The Arts Centre. And the outlet mall!
It’s a brilliant place to be and, with the last few weeks having been so difficult for the BBC, it’s been great being somewhere that feels like it’s all about the BBC’s future. And I believe that future’s as bright as ever– thanks, in part, to the way we inspire a life full of learning for all our audiences. Most media organisations aim to entertain. Many inform. A few do both. But I don’t think there is anybody else that adds a third. Educate. Inform, Educate, Entertain. John Reith’s holy trinity still stands tall – as perfect now as it’s ever been.
But what I want to talk about today is another word: a word that can entice more and more people along learning journeys across the BBC. That word is curiosity. I don’t mean the kind of curiosity you find in an Old Curiosity Shop. Or even the kind of curiosity we have to show as managers – we’ve heard a lot about that recently. I mean that inate, magical characteristic of curiosity which is inbuilt into our spirit and hard-wired into our minds. Just as many animals have the ability to walk within just minutes of being born, so human babies instantly demonstrate the most extraordinary levels of curiosity.
Edmund Burke said, ‘The first and simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind is curiosity.’ He was right. I have a daughter – she is three now and I will never forget how amazed I was when, within minutes of being born, her eyes were already actively buzzing around the place: exploring me, exploring her mother, exploring her surroundings. She couldn’t help herself! She was driven from deep within to learn more about herself and the world around her. This continues now – for better and for worse, as her questions get ever more demanding!
Curiosity is not just an inate part of being human, it is also probably one of the most beautiful parts of being human. It brings us all incredible pleasure. Curiosity is what pushes conversations forward. Curiosity is what makes us want to travel. Curiosity is what gets us joining groups, socializing, making friends.
Curiosity is also probably the single most important factor that makes humans stand out from other animals. It drives civilization forward. Isaac Newton didn’t just watch the apple drop: he asked why? When Abraham Lincoln saw the Niagara Falls his reaction was said to be not just one of awe, but also one of curiosity. He said, ‘Yeah, that’s amazing, but where does all that water come from?’ The answer of course was rain and rivers – as he’d have found out if he’d been able to access the BBC’s website at the time.
Curiosity is a continual hunger we are constantly compelled to feed. But - and here is the great thing - technology means we can now feed that hunger, again, again and again. In the past, our curiosity would often hit a brick wall when we couldn’t easily access the answers we needed. Now, technology has bulldozed those walls down – freeing us up to take our curiosity forward in new and exciting directions.
But – if curiosity is so great – and I think we can agree it is - here’s the billion dollar question: why is it so hard to accommodate it within our formal education system?
Albert Einstein once said, ‘It’s a miracle that curiosity survives formal education’.
Bernard Shaw wrote with his characteristically sharp pen that schools were almost wholly designed to stop children asking questions – mainly because their teachers didn’t know the answers!
Steve Jobs said in his famous Stanford University commencement address that it was only after he dropped out of college that he was able to drop in to the subjects that interested him, thereby satisfying his ‘curiosity and intuition’.
The difficulties are understandable. There is an almost inherent tension between unplanned curiosity on the part of an individual and organized efficiency of the part of a school. If a child is intensely curious about, say, Ancient Roman history, to what extent can a teacher nourish that curiosity if the curriculum demands his class studies the Tudors that term? Likewise, if a child at school wants to explore a connection between say Pompeii (which she’d learnt about in Latin), climate change (which she’d learnt about in geography) and behavioral science (which she’d learnt about in economics) – would she find it easy to explore those connections or would the system throw up walls?
It is in this way that schools can, on occasion, snuff out curiosity. And not just schools, society. If we’re honest, we can all find a child’s constant curiosity and questioning a little wearing – particularly when we don’t know the answers! Really - I don’t know why the sky is blue! As the saying goes, we spend the first two years of a child’s life teaching them to walk and talk and the rest of their lives telling them to sit down and shut up!
We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about this though. We’re not the first generation to act like this. Saint Augustine wrote in Confessions, around 1700 years ago, that hell had been ‘fashioned for the inquisitive’. But this societal objection to curiosity has disastrous consequences, because curiosity is the first essential ingredient in learning. It is the essential starting point to learning. Without curiosity, we have nothing. Sadly, this is what we find. According to the Skills and Employment Commission, only 3 out of 10 unskilled workers are prepared to invest in their own education. What has happened? That most innate of human instincts – curiosity – has been snuffed out.
This is, dare I say it, where the BBC really has something to offer. Our content often reignites people’s curiosity. We depend on it! It’s curiosity that gets people turning on or logging on in the first place. An episode of Doctor Who about Shakespeare gets people asking about literature. Frozen Planet gets people asking about the environment. Strictly gets people asking about dancing – even Government Ministers!
More and more often now, we’re putting extra learning content on our website that reinforces and supplements our programming, making sure we are hitting the Reithian trinity. And people are coming to us in huge numbers. We have more than a million unique users on our learning pages every week: over half of them are accessing the BBC Food and Bitesize website. These visits are not always prompted by our programmes: many of them are just people who have questions in their mind. It’s about providing material for people who want to learn more about cooking, gardening or their health: people who want to know how to cook a Tom Kha Gai, what to do if the leaves on their tomato plants turn yellow, or how they can keep themselves fit in middle-age.
What we want to do now though is really ensure that we are making the most of this. Making sure we’re opening us as many avenues as possible for people to pursue their curiosity. Our mission is not just to spark curiosity, but to sustain it. We need to fan the flames of the fire and make sure it keeps going.
That’s why we’re developing a new knowledge and learning product. This will be a single place on bbc.co.uk that people can access all of the BBC’s factual and educational content. The plan is to take people on learning journeys through BBC content and beyond with an experience that is playful, fun and seamless.
The product will harness those “spark moments” where something “curious” has opened up for a viewer. It will then allow them to discover more utilizing the vast amount of information that the BBC has at its fingertips.
There will be features that will allow viewers to store content in personal binders to come back to at a later date. The site will also track learning over time – so viewers can monitor progress, get suggestions for other content and share ideas with others.
We’re launching this next year and I’m very excited about it.
Let me show you how this will work in practice.
It is not just through a computer that these opportunities will be possible. You will also be able to access them on mobiles, tablets and connected TVs. This new knowledge and learning product has the potential to transform the whole television experience into something far more interactive, versatile and fun.
And this not just about making learning fun, it’s also designed to link into formal learning and meet skills gaps. So the content we produce to support adult skills or media literacy through sites such as Skillswise and Webwise will still be available – it’ll just be surfaced and navigated in new ways.
Development of this new product is ongoing. We’ve invested a lot of time, effort and research into getting it right. We know everything about how it’s going to work and what it’s going to be, we know it’s there to inspire and sustain curiosity. But there is one area that I could really do with your help on. What to call it? My initial reaction was to just call it BBC Learn – nice and simple. Like Ronseal. It does what it says on the tin.
But do we want to have the word BBC in there? Should the focus be on us – the learners, or the learning – the recipient. Education is not about the sage on the stage anymore. The principle of good learning is that it is learner led. So maybe we should go for ‘ilearn’ or ‘my learning’ type of name. Or if that is too easy, what about the second person – Youlearn?
And what about the word ‘learn’. That’s even more loaded. The word ‘learn’ has some negative connotations. People associate it with being bored, being talked at, wishing you were somewhere else. They associate it with completely opposite emotions to “being curious”.
So how about an acronym? Fun, Resourceful, Education Device? Fred! Or just plain Curious. Or Spark? Maybe we should go for something more suggestive… something sweet and nourishing. Like blackberry…apple…orange…pineapple. Oh no! They’re already spoken for! Is there any fruit left? What about Prune? Would that encourage you to unleash your inner curiosity? Kumquat? Sharpen your thinking? As you can tell, all ideas will be very gratefully received.
In conclusion, the work of BBC Learning and the new knowledge and learning product is really about tapping into that curiosity and using it as a cure to combat the learning lethargy which can hit so many people.
Because curiosity is not in conflict with a great education, it is an essential pre-condition to a great education.
You’ll all know the saying – ‘curiosity killed the cat’. Curiously enough, the first recorded use of that proverb was 1873 – just three years after the 1870 Education Act which made provision for universal education. The timing could scarcely have been worse!
Now I’m not quite sure what the saying means – but I tell you something - if curiosity did kill the cat, then the cat died in the noblest of causes.